screened Saturday February 23 2008 (at 10AM) on Image/Abkco DVD in Weehawken NJ
TSPDT rank # IMDb Wiki
Screening #1: December 2006, IFC Center – opening night premiere of a new digital print restored for the upcoming Abkco/Image Entertainment DVD supervised by Jodorowsky. Yoko Ono scheduled to introduce the film but pulls out for fear of her ex-chauffeur stalking and threatening her. That was about as much excitement as the evening had to offer, as by a third of the way into the film I had nodded off. Despite the heapings of noisy gunfights, sodomy and lesbianism, my brain cells instinctively powered down in reaction to the overbearing presence of what it deemed a gratuitous display of shock cinema. Or perhaps it was the pseudo-philosophical babblings of characters who lulled me into a defensive slumber. When I finally awoke to the sound of an entire village being wiped out mercilessly by a shotgun-toting monk, who then consummated the film in a climax ripped baldly from Vietnam war newsreels, I assured myself that I hadn’t missed much…
Screening #2: 10 a.m., sitting on my bed in a cold tranquil February morning. This time I don’t fall asleep, and what’s more, I’m taken in by the film’s swagger, its audio-visual abundance, the way its execution rendered its conceptual gimmickry into real moments and tactile sensations. In the days and weeks that follow, I try to make my peace with the film.
I compile the webliography as with all my Shooting entries, and in doing so I glean through a wide swath of opinions, high and low, past and present. Through the writings of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenabum I gain an appreciation of the signifiance of the film in spawning midnight movie culture and the cult of adoration surrounding the film from insomniac headtrippers, as well as the backlash that followed. The film’s attributions being a profound door to transcendental enlightenment for the drug culture of a past era seem to burden its present reputation, as more than one critic dismisses the film as pastiche gibberish – even Hoberman, who tripped with Jodorowsky in Mexico, seems sheepish about extolling the film. But for me, seeing it in the sober daylight, I think it’s an indelible achievement in cinema-as-automatic writing.
What had changed for me between screenings #1 and #2? Could the vagaries of my own viewing state account for the difference? It’s frightening to think, let alone admit how much one’s own tiredness and mood can affect their response, but that’s the human truth of it. Still, I think a movie like El Topo seems particularly susceptible of triggering an unpredictable response – there’s something I still can’t put my finger on.
I keep trying to break the film down into pieces I can understand. I’ve tried my hand at a video essay to elucidate what I feel is the film’s essence, but I have neither the time nor the talent to arrive at anything that, say, a Peter Tscherkassky could do with another film. I’ve settled for something a little more banal and perhaps cowardly for a video essay – asking other viewers for their opinion…
Screening #3: Midnight screening in NYC. In trying to defer to others under the pretense of understanding the “midnight movie” phenomenon, I stand outside the theater lobby and interview patrons. I even observe people’s reactions during the screenings to gauge what they laugh and gasp at. (Why would anyone laugh at a line of peasants being arbitrarily executed?) I don’t find much of a connection with what others are saying and what’s going on in my head, but how could I expect to when all that connects us is a film that is open to any variety of responses? All I’m really left with is my own response to contend with.
Still my opinion is one somewhat founded upon reaction to others. On many levels it’s a film that’s easy to ridicule, perhaps too easy: its flagrant borrowing of Biblical and mythical tropes, its misogyny, its P.T. Barnumesque exhibitionism of human freaks and gross-out effects all feels obvious. But something about this blatantness is what is behind the brilliance of the film, that it does function on multiple levels – the obvious and the sublime. There’s a certain frequency the film attains at points that feels singularly uncanny and just right if you happened to be tuned in. It’s chiefly in the insistence of the montage, how it keeps bombarding you with images, cuts, flashes, each scene proclaiming “let there be…” with sanctimonious bombast. It’s pretentious, yes, and it may amount to nothing in terms of meaning, but as a flow of imagery, its sensuality is insistent until it becomes indelible.
I arrive at this – a film’s worth is ultimately in whether it lives and breathes in your presence. I can’t deny that El Topo is a living film. Even in its ample depictions of violent, bloody death, it oozes with life.
Want to go deeper? Continue reading “915 (56). El Topo (1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky)”